Note: The Republican-backed effort to remove Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle failed Tuesday when it was shot down by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. This move came despite the effort initially receiving widespread support from House Republicans. Read more about the resolution's failure here. The below letter went to press on Monday night, before the effort's surprise failure in subcommittee.
Republican legislators are targeting Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle due to a ruling she made last year to expand absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. The claim is that Lyle — by ruling to extend mail-in voting opportunities to those in high-health-risk groups, caretakers and those in extreme fear of contracting COVID-19 — was somehow subverting the law.
Sixty-seven members of the Republican caucus have signed on as co-sponsors of state Rep. Tim Rudd’s (R-Murfreesboro) measure to remove Lyle. No Republican candidate filed to run against Lyle in 2014, and she received almost 44,000 votes for the Chancery Court Part III bench. As Stephen Elliott reported for our sister publication, the Nashville Post: “Lyle was first appointed to the Chancery Court by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist and sought to retain the position by running as a Republican herself. She later won election as a Democrat.”
In a Tennessee House Democratic Caucus press conference last week, Rep. Bill Beck (D-Nashville) summarized the problem with Rudd’s resolution: Chancellor Lyle received the case at random with the issue about who would get an absentee voter card. There were three groups who needed consideration — those who were prone to having health complications from catching COVID-19, those who were caretakers of that high-risk group, and those who had an emphatic fear of voting during the pandemic. Beck noted that Lyle ruled an injunction so that all three groups could get an absentee ballot in June for an election in August — plenty of time for it to be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which it was. The state, though originally objecting to all three categories, later decided to concede on the first two. And those two, noted Beck, were “agreed in the Supreme Court that they could move forward.”
Now, Beck says, “a member of the legislature has decided this was some type of activist role by the chancellor.”
But as Steve Cavendish wrote in last week’s issue of Scene: “Lyle is the best judge on any bench in Nashville, and maybe in the entire state. Because of its proximity to the Capitol, chancery court in Nashville hears more complicated litigation and sorts through more arcane governmental disputes than any other state court in Tennessee. Take a poll of serious attorneys — even the ones whom Lyle has ruled against — and they would likely choose to appear in her court over any other. The state Supreme Court even created a special business court docket that funneled complex business disputes into her court beginning in 2015. Why? Because the state wanted to instill confidence in businesses that they would get a fair, competent hearing when tough cases arise. It’s been a huge success.”
Both the Nashville Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association have released statements to the press noting their extreme disfavor with the resolution. (Both statements can be viewed in full via WSMV.com.) Nashville Bar Association President Mike Abelow calls the bill a “dangerous attack on the independence of the judiciary in Tennessee.” Abelow further notes: “Judges must be able to decide controversial cases based on the facts and the law, not based on how their decision may be perceived by the legislature. Violating that precedent threatens the people’s rights under our Constitution.”
Tennessee Bar Association President Michelle Greenway Sellers issued a similar statement, saying: “We believe House Resolution (HR23) will have a chilling effect on the administration of justice in our state, and threatens the bedrock principle of separation of powers, which lies at the core of Tennessee’s system of government.”
The resolution points to Article VI, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution, under which a judge can be removed “for cause.” But Sellers makes clear several ways Tennessee law already holds judges accountable should that prove necessary. The first is the Board of Judicial Conduct, which was “created by the legislature itself.” This board can look into any number of things, from “fitness of the judge to rule” to “any act that reflects unfavorably upon the judiciary.” Another means of accountability is the appeals process — and another is the election process. Sellers added: “Article VI, Section 6 is not a tool used as a matter of course, and we respectfully believe that the legislature should not use it in this circumstance.”
Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association president John Griffith told The Tennessean: “We have checks and balances in place. You don’t remove a judge because you disagree with the decision. I don’t want her decisions flavored by the shadow of a separate body of government that really shouldn’t be involved in this particular situation.”
Rudd’s resolution is a slap in the face to our respected and independent judges, and one that could have serious consequences on future cases.
Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville) said it well in the caucus press conference: “We need to be focusing on, how are we going to make Tennesseans’ lives better?”
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.